St. Gregory’s Moralia

I have started reading St. Gregory the Great’s Moralia in Job in the new English translation by Brian Kerns, O.C.S.O., only occasionally checking a pdf of the Latin. It’s an enormous work—about the length of Augustine’s City of God and Confessions combined— and I have only got through book I, but so far it fully justifies its reputation as a masterpiece.

Scripture, St. Gregory tells us, is “a river both shallow and deep, in which a lamb walks and an elephant swims.” In his commentary (at least in book I— the editorial introduction that the procedure changes later on) Gregory interprets each passage in three senses. First he interprets a few verses in the “historical” sense as applying to Job, and then goes back and interprets them again in an allegorical sense as referring to Christ the head, and then goes back and interprets them a third time in a moral sense as applying to Christ’s body, the Church. He thus takes what we would call the anagogical sense as part of the moral sense.

One theme that struck me particularly in reading book one was hope (perhaps because I had just preached a retreat on that virtue). Here is Gregory on how the burden of earthly life is unbearable without hope:

What indeed could be heavier or more burdensome than to bear the troubles of a passing world without any hope of reward to relieve the mind? (1.XV.22)

Et quid esse gravius atque onustius potest, quam afflictionem saeculi praetereuntis perpeti, et nequaquam ad relevationem mentis gaudia remunerationis sperare?

And again on a donkey as a figure of how hopes makes the burdens of life bearable:

So he offers his shoulders to bear burdens, for he has spotted eternal rest, and he obeys difficult orders at work, regardless of anything his natural weakness may and impossible; he believes it to be light and easy, in hope of the reward. (1.XVI.24)

Quae ad portandum humerum supponit; quia conspecta superna requie, praeceptis etiam gravibus in operatione se subjicit, et quidquid intolerabile pusillanimitas asserit, hoc ei leve ac facile spes remunerationis ostendit.

At the same time I have been reading Benoît Peeters’s Derrida biography, and I was struck by a line from a letter written by the young Derrida to a friend: “If the only thing we can share in this world is despair, I’ll be ready to share it with you, always.” (p. 90). Too things struck me about that line: the first is the inescapable human orientation toward the common good; even in the apparent absence of anything good, one must at least convert one’s despair into a good to be shared. The second is how well the sadness of the line illustrates St. Gregory’s point: what could be heavier or more burdensome than despair?

He Says Both

Jacques Derrida’s famous dictum “il n’y a pas de hors-texte” has often been misinterpreted and mistranslated— or so at least say many know-it-all Derrida interpreters. “He did not mean there is nothing outside the text,” they tell us. These protestations sometimes take on a somewhat comic hue. Thus John Llewelyn writes, “Derrida does not say… Il n’y a rien hors du texte.” This is a somewhat comical way of putting things, since Derrida does say exactly that six pages after the passage on which Llewelyn is commenting. In context: « Si nous considérons, selon le propos axial de cet essai, qu’il n’y a rien hors du texte, notre ultime justification serait donc la suivante : le concept de supplément et la théorie de l’écriture désignent, comme on dit si souvent aujourd’hui, en abyme, la textualité elle-même dans le texte de Rousseau. » (De la grammatologiep. 233)


Charles De Koninck, Jacob Klein, and Socratic Logocentrism

The bi-lingual Quebecois journal Laval théologique et philosophique, has recently uploaded its archives to the web. This was the organ of Laval School Thomism, and the early issues contain lots of fascinating material by Charles De Koninck, the school’s most distinguished thinker, as well as pieces by his students and colleagues. Laval School Thomists have a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward writing and publishing. In the spirit of Socrates’s critique of writing in the Phaedrus,1 they are wary of the ways in which writing can aggravate the tendency of words to lose their connection to things. De Koninck argues that philosophy is rooted in the common conceptions which human reason forms “prior to any deliberate and constructive endeavor to learn.” These common conceptions are the most certain knowledge, but they are vague, indistinct, “confused.” As Aristotle puts it at the beginning of the Physics, “What are first obvious and certain to us are rather confused, and from these, the elements and principles become known later by dividing them.” The role of philosophy, then, is to make clear what is already contained in common conceptions. De Koninck was a great enemy of philosophic “systems” in which concepts are rendered intelligible by their function in the system, rather than by their rootedness in pre-scientific logos. Among his disciples one gets a sense that the problem with writing is that it lends itself to the development of a “technical” vocabulary from which such systems are formed. De Koninck  was especially opposed to any system which would use not words, which by their nature intend the world, but symbols, which replace what they represent. He pointed out the absurdities that followed from conceiving of thought as a method of manipulating symbols according to rules– of replacing “logic” in the ancient sense with philosophical calculus, or characteristic, or symbolic mathematical logic; all of which are not so much logic as grammatology.

In this De Koninck agrees with a philosopher of a quite different tradition: Jacob Klein. A student of Husserl and Heidegger, Klein did not follow his teachers. He understood philosophy in a way very similar to De Koninck. He looked to the Greeks whose account of philosophy he summarizes as follows: Continue reading